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Reflections on the Nation

Victor S. Navasky, A Matter of Opinion (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005)

Starting, and then sustaining, a non-commercial, proudly ideological magazine has never been an easy feat—even less so in the present era of hyper conglomeration, where advertiser-fueled, sex-drenched glossy pages of puff spill over the aisles of grocery stores across the country. The conscious choice to publish an independent political journal, and try somehow to survive financially, is not one that should be made lightly.

Imagine, then, the gumption needed by Nation founder E.L. Godkin, to declare in the first sentence in the first paragraph of the first story of the first issue on the first page of The Nation, in 1865: “The week has been singularly barren of exciting events.”

For a magazine seeking to be an independent, contrary, sometimes irreverent voice, the first sentence is genius. Of course, it is also ultimately ironic: much was doubtless happening in the nation that year, that month, that very day—and much more has occurred in the subsequent 140 years of The Nation’s existence—and the magazine has not been shy to both comment on the happenings as well as instigate some of their very own (The Nation published Ralph Nader’s “The Safe Car You Can’t Buy” in 1959, about the Corvair).

Longtime Nation editor, and now its publisher, Navasky has long felt a need to articulate the significance of journals of opinion in building a more democratic culture and politics. Initially, he seemed tempted to take a scholarly stab (he mentions his working title was “Reflections on the Role of the Journal of Opinion in the Age of Electronic, Conglomerated, Transnational Communications, and if I can only come up with a subtitle my job is done”). Thankfully, however, he has instead written an engaging professional memoir (and by professional, it is necessarily also part personal) about his adventures at The Nation, New York Times, and his original publication, Monocle. Through his adventures, which meander unsystematically but entertainingly through the book’s 400-plus pages, he also insightfully comments on the journal of opinion’s ultimate role: to keep alive the spirit of debate, which is all the more necessary in this anti-democratic era.

Before arriving as the editor of The Nation in 1978, Navasky’s previous journalism experience included the satirical Monocle—which he founded while attending Yale Law School, and around which he drew from an unbelievably talented pool. Monocle’s motto was “In the land of the blind the one-eyed man is king,” and it described itself as a “leisurely quarterly,” which Navasky explains meant that it came out twice a year. In a country still caught up in the anti-communist crusade, Monocle existed to lampoon the absurdity and hopefully wake people up as well; its editorial policy was “that the views of our contributors, no matter how conflicting and contradictory, are the views of the editors.”

After Monocle folded, Navasky moved on to the Times Magazine, where he became a “manuscript editor” in 1970. He initially believed that it would be his responsibility to identify new trends, discover promising young writers, dig below the surface to spot unknown phenomena—in short, to stay ahead of the news-making curve. But after thirteen weeks of excitedly proposing ideas, and at the end of the standard probationary period, he realized that not a single idea of his had actually morphed into a publishable story. And at this point, he finally studied the art of story selection, and uncovered the two most important criteria for a Magazine story: 1) that it be about a topic already covered in the Times (the belief being that any news worth exploring should already have been mentioned in the “paper of record”) and 2) that the writer proposed for the piece ought to have already been published in the Times.

Acting within these guidelines, Navasky began to find his pitches surviving the story meetings and landing in print, though, as he writes, he was now “giving them precisely those ideas and writers for which they didn’t need me. But that was their business.” Once he had a successful track record, he began to feel that he could introduce items that weren’t precisely typical for the Magazine, and, as he writes, “Slowly I persuaded myself I was making a modest difference,” though modest differences, of course, are not entirely inspiring.

His experiences at the Magazine doubtless informed his pitch in 1978 to convince the then-owner of The Nation to turn the publication over to himself and wealthy backer Hamilton Fish. “In the long run,” he wrote, “the success of The Nation does not depend on luring the famous into the magazine but on how many new, young writers The Nation can discover and nourish. Where is the new Nader, the next Dan Wakefield?”

Along with countless entertaining, and educational, anecdotes, A Matter of Opinion also presents a frank and field-tested view of the pitfalls and promises that publishing a political magazine brings with it. For magazines like The Nation, subscribers are the lifeblood. Unlike dumbed-down, apolitical rags, which can rely on cozy and long-term relationships with corporate backers to keep them afloat with advertising dollars, a magazine like The Nation will (or at least should) effectively alienate enough powerful companies with its investigative reporting and analysis to keep the amount of advertising dollars relatively small (at The Nation, generally less than 10 percent of their budget is raised through advertising).

Carey McWilliams, editor of The Nation from 1955 to 1975—and author of the classic account of immigrant farm workers, Factories in the Field—decried the tendency to continuously try to “solve” the problem of The Nation’s finances:

The problem is that The Nation happens to have a marvelous editorial policy, formulated by a genius, E.L. Godkin. But the format, the policy, limits circulation, always has, always will. The magazine can never expect to get the readership which would enable it to get the advertising which would enable it to be self-sufficient, even profitable through advertising. That is, it can’t expect to do that and remain The Nation. But this is a rare piece of good fortune. If The Nation ever became dependent on advertising, it would cease to be The Nation.

All of which means that the problem is getting enough full-price regular subscriptions—from readers who are natural Nation readers—to carry the load. The task is not unmanageable; it can be licked.

Along with a core of dedicated subscribers (in reaction to the Bush era, the magazine now has an all-time high 184,296 subscribers), The Nation has also found enough wealthy supporters like Hamilton Fish, Arthur Carter, and Paul Newman to support its work and help bankroll the publication without expecting editorial control. In one memorable example, Gore Vidal wrote an article entitled “Some Jews and the Gays,” criticizing a number of anti-gay articles that had been published in Commentary and taking Jews to task for such bigotry. Norman Podhoretz mounted a campaign against The Nation, calling Vidal’s article in his characteristically understated manner the “most blatantly anti-Semitic outburst to appear in an American periodical since the Second World War.”

Carter, who was the publisher at the time, had never expressed concern before about the content of The Nation. Indeed, Navasky writes that Carter even seemed to enjoy the moments when his well-to-do colleagues would come to him angry about an article criticizing them (“What do you expect?” he would tell them. “It’s The Nation.”). Still, when Podhoretz sent hysterical letters to all of the people on the magazine’s masthead about the Vidal article, Navasky wondered how he might react; Carter was himself part of the New York Jewish establishment.

Over lunch, in the midst of the controversy, Carter told Navasky that the head of the Anti-Defamation League, a longtime friend, had called. “‘You know what I told him when he started to complain? I told him, What do you think we are? It’s The Nation, not the Jewish Federation Newsletter.’” A key component, then, of The Nation’s longevity has also been the ability of people like Navasky to find people like Carter, who can handle and even enjoy the controversy that comes when the feathers of powerful people are ruffled.

Navasky’s book reminds us that a community of engaged and angry readers, even a combination of the two adjectives—enraged—is a needed ingredient in any ostensible democracy. Yes, there may at times be too much infighting among the columnists, and many an over-the-top cancellation letter, but what is the alternative? There is a reason that magazines like Men’s Journal and Maxim don’t receive such screaming letters: no one much cares about what is inside. And this lack of passion also means that as soon as a magazine fails to turn a profit (which The Nation has done year after year throughout its existence), it goes under. As Carey McWilliams pointed out: “It is precisely because The Nation’s backers cared more about what it stood for than what it earned that the magazine has survived where countless other publications with circulations in the millions have gone under.”

What, then, is the ultimate significance of The Nation, or any other journal of opinion? Navasky’s book is in many ways a meditation on this question, and despite his obvious intellect, the answers he posits are more vague than one supposes he wishes. As he writes, “That the often intangible influence of these journals is not quantifiable does not make it any less real. How does one measure their influence on intellectual currents, on cultural assumptions, on the sense of the possible, on the climate of opinion? The fight to exert influence is often a fight over the future.” To demonstrate his case—albeit while using an example on the other side of the political aisle, Navasky continues: “We have seen how National Review’s nourishing of the impossible, and I would add implausible if not insane, ideas of the radical right contributed to the nomination of Goldwater in 1964 and the election of Reagan in 1980.”

Equally difficult to pin down with precision are the motivations of dedicated editors, writers, and readers who put long hours of sweat into magazines like The Nation, In These Times, and even our own Brooklyn Rail. Generally speaking: we enjoy writing; we enjoy seeing our writing published; we enjoy reading; we enjoy argument; we enjoy being part of a community where issues are important enough to argue over. And we especially enjoy those rare times when the issues and suggestions emanating from the independent press make an impact on the mainstream debate, and change it slightly for the better.


Gabriel Thompson


The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2005

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